The College of Law and the Sutton Trust today announced major donations worth £1.5m to promote access to the legal profession. The College which is donating £1.25m will work in partnership with the Sutton Trust, which is contributing a further £250,000 and will manage the project, to develop a national network to attract more people from less privileged backgrounds into the legal profession.
The move, called “Pathways to Law”, underlines the College’s increasing influence and leadership in the sector, and both organisations’ links with top universities in the College’s five regional centres.
The College, the leading educational charity for the legal profession, and the Sutton Trust, which provides educational opportunities for non-privileged children, are currently finalising discussions with top law firms’ recruiters who support College programmes. It is anticipated that close to 750 students a year could be assisted by the year 2010. If they all were to gain training contracts they would form about 12.5% of the 6000 solicitors who start the next stage of their training.
The programme is designed to attract fresh talent to the legal profession by targeting students from state schools who will be the first in their family to attend university, and whose parents are in non-professional occupations. It is aimed at schools which have a higher than average proportion of children on free school meals and very little history of sending young people to higher education.
The programme starts with the selection of eligible students when they are 15-16. It will offer them careers advice and guidance on university applications in the sixth form, provide mentoring while they are at school and university, and introduce them to contacts in the legal world, which will lead to work experience and placements with law firms and chambers.
The joint initiative has been prompted by a disturbing report by the Sutton Trust published last year on the educational backgrounds of the UK’s top solicitors, barristers and judges. This found that three out of four top judges, more than two-thirds of top barristers and more than half the partners at leading law firms had been educated at private schools, which now account for 7% of the school population.
Five universities will shortly be selected to work with the College’s regional centres in London, Guildford, Birmingham, York and Chester, on the basis of their commitment to widening participation and their existing relationship with the college centres.
The College project is modelled on an existing Sutton Trust Pathways to the Professions Project at the University of Edinburgh. This was selected last year as an example of best practice in widening participation by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals. The University has tracked all students registered with the Pathways project (in law, medicine and veterinary science) since 2003, and a total of 176 Pathways to the Professions students have entered the University of Edinburgh, of whom 103 were studying for Law degrees. 74 of these were the first in their family to go to Higher Education. At least another 21 students went on to study law at other institutions.
Professor Nigel Savage, Chief Executive of The College of Law, said: “This project is at the heart of what the College is all about these days and has the full backing of its executive and trustees. It is what distinguishes the College from our competitors. We are not about shareholder values. We are about investing in the future of the profession. By subscribing to College programmes law firms and law students are investing in our values and commitment to the next generation of lawyers.
“In recent years we have invested heavily in all our programmes and in the fabric of the College. In particular, our recent new City centre in Moorgate attracted huge admiration and support. It is vital that our surpluses are used to enrich all our students and, in particular, by ensuring that they are not drawn disproportionately from a narrow section of society. By investing our own funds and working with those law firms that share our values, we can make a real difference.”
Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “The Sutton Trust is committed to combating educational inequality by innovative and entrepreneurial means. In a competitive area such as access to the legal profession, the extent to which applicants are considered plausible candidates can depend to a large part on their soft skills and cultural capital. This is something which middle class students take for granted and which gives them a decided advantage.
I am delighted that the College is investing so much in our programme to give students from less well off backgrounds the same opportunities. I would also like to invite leading law firms to join with us in delivering this programme; their support will be crucial in ensuring its success.”
Cherie Booth QC supported the launch of the Pathways scheme: “I am delighted that the highly successful Pathways to Law project is being expanded across the country. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to enter the profession from a non-privileged background. The problem is not just lack of money, although this is a big obstacle, but also the lack of contacts – family or friends who can help to find you work experience and mini-pupillages.
I have for some years been associated with the College’s and Sutton Trust’s initiatives to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds into Law through summer and winter schools, and so I hope that leading chambers will become fully involved in this important new venture. “
Fiona Woolf, Law Society President, said: “Over recent years, the solicitors’ profession has become more diverse but there is much more to do to make it truly reflective of society. I am delighted that The College of Law and the Sutton Trust have joined forces to pioneer this invaluable initiative which should enrich our profession by making the law more accessible to a wider number of people.”
Mr Stephen Hockman QC, Chairman of the Bar Council, said: “The Bar Council wants to ensure that entry to the Bar is diverse and from all sections of society. We welcome this initiative of The College of Law and the Sutton Trust which will support our own efforts to ensure that membership of the Bar is inclusive and open to all.”